Writer, 'Punch' editor and veteran of Radio 4's 'The News Quiz' billed as the funniest man in Britain
Saturday 20 October 2007
Alan Coren, writer and broadcaster: born Barnet, Hertfordshire 27 June 1938; Assistant Editor, Punch 1963-66, Literary Editor 1966-69, Deputy Editor 1969-77, Editor 1978-87; TV Critic, The Times 1971-78, columnist 1988-2007; columnist, Daily Mail 1972-76, Mail on Sunday 1984-92; panellist, The News Quiz 1975-2007; Editor, The Listener 1988-89; columnist, Sunday Express 1992-96; married 1963 Anne Kasriel (one son, one daughter); died London 18 October 2007.
Alan Coren arrived at the Punch office one morning to tell us proudly that he had been stopped by the police while driving through St James's Park the evening before. "Someone seems to have tried to take a pot-shot at Princess Anne on her way home to Buck House," he said,
and they were stopping everyone just in case. I must have made some flippant remark to the officer who questioned us, because he gave me an odd look and said, "Some kind of humorist are we, sir?" Which left me with a problem, because I was actually some kind of humorist, and I could have legitimately expanded there and then on my historic role as editor of Punch. But some kind of instinct told me that that wasn't what he wanted to hear, so I said, sorry, no, I wasn't.
It was one of Alan Coren's problems that he was not just some kind of humorist, but was always billed as Britain's funniest living writer. That's a horrible thing to say about anyone. For a start, you have to try to live up to it. For another thing, you don't know what kind of funny writer you are meant to be. A Richard Curtis or Paul Abbott, who does funny screenplays? An Eddie Izzard or Jeremy Hardy, who writes and performs his own stand-up material? A Ben Elton or Stephen Fry, super-star handyman of the humour world, prepared to turn out day or night for a small fortune to fix things and get the funny bone working again . . . ?
Actually, Coren came from a tradition older than all of those, a pre-television and pre-film tradition, even pre-radio, that of the jobbing columnist, the humorous feuilletoniste, the man who has a space on a page and fills it regularly. It's a tradition that goes back through Auberon Waugh, Peter Simple and Timothy Shy to Thurber, Benchley, and Weedon and Grossmith. Every humorous writer has his own historical hero to look back to. With Richard Ingrams, for instance, it's "Beachcomber". With Alan Coren it was S.J. Perelman, the sharp, Jewish-American word-polisher who wrote razor-sharp pieces for The New Yorker and worked on one or two Marx Brothers scripts.
Alan Coren was Jewish, too. The week he became editor of Punch there was a huge profile of him in The Jewish Chronicle. Coren was somewhat embarrassed. "This is ridiculous," he said, waving it at us. "I haven't been Jewish for years!" But being Jewish was probably less of an advantage to him in Britain than it would have been in America, where being comic and being Jewish are much closer connected, where men like Woody Allen and Jackie Mason use Jewish culture as their habitual material, and where it was impossible to even think of becoming one of the Marx Brothers if you weren't already Jewish.
Alan Coren grew up in Barnet, to the north of London, and went to school by bus every day past a bike shop which had a big notice saying: "Get Off That Bus – It will Never Be Yours! Sixpence a Day Will Buy You a Bicycle!" (It's odd what you remember from other people's childhoods.) Enormously bright from an early age, Alan did even better than get a bike – he went to grammar school, won a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, and proceeded from there with a degree in English to Yale and Berkeley, California.
About to sink into the lush swamplands of American academia, he was rescued by the offer of a job on Punch magazine in 1963, where he was to stay for the next 24 years – the last 10 as editor – and make his name as the funniest man writing in Britain today.
A lot of his best stuff was topically inspired, and no doubt makes less sense today than it did then. One of his best pieces was inspired by a report that archaeologists had found fossil remains of the largest flying mammal, a kind of monster-pterodactyl. This was in the heyday of Concorde's controversial construction, and Coren retold the story of the flying fossil in terms of a Stone Age Anglo-French collaboration. Very funny. Would it be as funny now? Hmmmm . . .
In any case, it was perhaps not as a satirist that he was at his best but on those occasions when he let his fancy off its rein. For instance, in his room at Punch he had a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, each volume bearing on the spine the name of the first and last entry in the volume, so that instead of there being a volume called simply N-O, it was labelled Napoleon-Ozmolysis. For years Coren devised a set of fancies in which these were the title of individual books and finally wrote a superb piece with résumés of each one. ("Napoleon Ozmolysis", for instance, turned out to be the life of a legendary billionaire Greek ship-owner.) As funny now as then.
In the mid-1970s he wrote for Punch a series of reports purporting to be written by Idi Amin, in an imitation black dialect which makes us cringe today, and made Coren too in later years, though as they came out in two volumes of The Collected Bulletins of Idi Amin, they clearly went down well at the time. Fastidious taste was never Coren's strong point, and quite right too.
As a team member from 1975 on Radio 4's The News Quiz, he was always outrageously anti-German. He had a theory that the books which sold best in Britain dealt with sports, pets, and the Second World War, so one of his collections was called Golfing for Cats (1975) and had a huge swastika on the front. A couple of days before the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, I heard Coren saying on The News Quiz, in answer to a question on her and land-mines, "I don't know much about Princess Diana or about land-mines, but I do know that you poke either at your peril," which had been deleted from the programme by the dear old BBC by the time it was repeated . . .
There were, perhaps, two Alan Corens. One was the man who wrote the pieces and one was the man who talked. When he wrote, he was brilliant, if sometimes too conscious of being known as the funniest writer in Britain; the vocabulary would from time to time get clotted, and the prose would trip over its own jokes. When he talked off the cuff, he relaxed more and was as quick and inventive as anyone on the professional comedy circuit; in his 30 years' tenure on The News Quiz, it is hard to think of any young stand-up comedian who came on the show and outdrew him.
Funny things he said? I can remember a few. I was once in a pub near Christmas time with him when he suddenly said: "You see the man over there with the gum boils and the galley proofs of his next year's diary?" and I looked round, and sure enough, there was a man with red cheeks and paper cascading down his chest, and that was 30 years ago, and funny or not, I still remember it, so I think it was.
I remember once when he was chairing the Punch Lunch, and Princess Margaret – that day's chief guest – turned and whispered to him discreetly. Coren nodded and banged the table. "This is a bit irregular," he said to all 20 of us at the table, "but Princess Margaret is dying for a fag, so we're going to have the loyal toast before the main course for a change. Well, fair enough – it's her sister."
I remember once he went to see a film called Camelot, a terrible musical version of the Arthurian legend, and 20 minutes from the end he stood up in the crowded cinema, said loudly, " 'Ere, I've seen this before!" and walked out.
I remember once we were playing our regular game of indoor cricket with a tennis ball in the big office at Punch ("Carpet's taking spin this morning," he used to say sagely, as he prodded the floor before taking guard) and, as I bowled, he savagely pulled the ball to the wall for a boundary, hitting a pile of magazines and bringing them to the ground.
"Spot of trouble among the Spectators, I see," he remarked.
Funny? Damned quick, anyway.
I also remember once he said to me, soulfully and seriously: "When I was writing my piece last night, my wife Anne came and looked over my shoulder as I typed away, and she suddenly said, halfway through reading it: 'When you are 60 years old, are you still going to be writing little pieces about men called Norman Foskett?', and my blood ran cold."
Because of course that is what he would be doing until the day he died. He did it because that is what he did. He did it for Punch and the Mail and The Times. He passed 60 and nearly made 70 and was still doing it. He may have been editor of Punch, and editor of The Listener (ah, where are they both now?) and he may have been Tweedledum to Sandi Toksvig's Tweedledee on Call My Bluff, but what he did was write pieces, and that is how he will be remembered.
I shall also remember him for the day he tried to swim the English Channel and never quite got out of Dover harbour, but that is another story, for another time.
Those of us who were in the same year as Alan Coren at East Barnet Grammar were in awe of his academic brilliance as well as his unfailing ability to make us laugh, writes Jeffrey Cloves. I can remember a teacher's shoulders shaking with helpless laughter at something Alan said in class.
We lived close to the school and my mum (now 94) still remembers that Alan always raised his school cap to her when they met in the street at lunchtimes and she passed on the Test match scores from the radio commentary. He seemed to me (to most of us, I suspect) immensely grown-up and sophisticated and, almost alone amongst my friends, he knew what he was going to do when he left school. It was no surprise to us when his pieces began to appear in Punch, or that they were peppered with references to his schooldays.
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